When it comes down to it, every fundraiser is about helping people. But at Cars & ’Q for the Cause, a Sandy Springs tradition that raised $330,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation last year alone, the effort is downright personal.

Starting in 2009 as a small car show and barbecue in the company parking lot, the event is a way for Choate Construction’s founders to try to save the life of close family friend Leann Rittenbaum Ott, who was born with CF. Attendees not only see some cool cars and enjoy food, beer and music, but they also usually meet Ott herself, whose life has been extended by the research the event helps to fund.

Leann Ott in a 1969 Camaro. (CatMax Photography)

When Cars & ’Q returns this year on April 21, it will be a little different. Ott will not be there as honorary chair. She’s at Duke University Hospital, recovering from a double lung transplant. The surgery sharpens a sense of mission for company founder Millard Choate and daughter Emily Bridges, who say the funds make a very real difference for people like Ott.

“In the most tangible form, Cars & ’Q means the possibility of more tomorrows with my best friend,” says Bridges.

Choate said that Ott’s transplant, while successful so far, does not cure her of the genetic disease, which makes mucus build up in the lungs and other organs, ultimately fatally.

“We’re working hard to continue to look for a full cure while she has this additional time,” he said.

Choate Construction is a billion-dollar national company whose projects include Buckhead’s Atlanta Tech Village. It’s also a local company at heart, where helping out a friend in need fits right in.

Choate started the business in 1989 in the basement of his Sandy Springs home behind Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Around that time, Emily, at age 2, made friends with another girl named Leann. A year later, Leann was diagnosed with CF.

“And I was like, what is that?” Choate recalls. He soon found out that “it’s a very cruel disease” with a life expectancy at the time of only 13 years old. “So it was a race against time,” he said.

CF affects only about 30,000 people in the U.S., Choate said. “The bad news is … Big Pharma doesn’t see a big market for it,” he said, leaving research funding mainly up to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The good news: Research has resulted in significant treatment improvements. Since Ott’s diagnosis, the typical survival age is now in the early 40s. Choate says that “it’s not one of those frustrating things where you might not see progress for 50 years.”

Emily Bridges and Millard Choate. (Ted Williams)

Choate Construction has been working with the CF Foundation for years, including local fundraisers at regional branch offices, and the company works with many other unrelated nonprofits like the Community Assistance Center. But Cars & ’Q is something special, turning the family hobby of car-collecting into a major community event and CF fundraiser.

“I’m an old redneck, grew up on a cattle farm,” said Choate, explaining that he’s been around “cars and vehicles and equipment my whole life.” His first post-college car was a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, and he still has it. Emily caught the car bug also.

The little car show with barbecue now draws a wide variety of vehicles, from old muscle cars to exotic sports cars to military vehicles.

“Everybody has a blast,” he says. “It’s casual. It’s not a competitive event.”

And virtually every penny, aside from minor equipment rental, goes to the CF Foundation, he said. That’s partly thanks to major volunteerism from company employees. One executive heavily involved in the fundraising, Steve Soteres, is now publicly prominent as a new member of the Sandy Springs City Council.

“Leann is an amazing girl and the research funded by the CF Foundation is what has made a huge difference in her life and the lives of so many other CF patients,” said Soteres. “I’d love to see the citizens of Sandy Spring come out in force and show our support for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.”

Though Ott can’t attend this year, Bridges says, she’ll know that the expected crowd of 1,200 will be cheering her own.

“While there are many challenges ahead, she is making incredible strides in her recovery,” says Bridges. “She is a fighter.”

Cars & ’Q for the Cause
Saturday, April 21, 4 p.m.
Choate Construction, 8200 Roberts Drive, Sandy Springs
Tickets $20 ($40 with bar access) advance, $30/$50 at door.
Info: carsnq.passioncff.org.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.